Background Switcher (Hidden)

Carolina Wren Nest

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Blessings abound in June. There could be no more delighted host to a family of Carolina wrens in a hanging basket than the Science Chimp. First, let me dispel the notion that, should birds take up nesting in a hanging basket full of flowers, you have to creep around and stop watering the basket. If you stop watering it, the plants will die, and nobody wants that to happen, especially the birds who built the nest in their shelter in the first place. The Lord doesn't stop watering the forest floor just because a towhee is nesting there. He depends on the towhee to build a nest that repels water and drains quickly. So you water a little more gently, with a watering can, but you water it. Durn straight I water it; those are some nice plants in there and I grew them meself.

Neither do you have to creep around or stop using your front door. The wrens chose to nest there precisely because they wanted to be around human activity, because noisy everpresent humans are likely to be intolerant of the snakes and raccoons that might otherwise eat their eggs and young. If that sounds like a stretch for a bird's thought processes, well, you'll just have to believe me that it isn't. Following the wren's lead, I moved everything away from their basket that could possibly give a leg up to a coon or a six-foot black rat snake-pots and pedestals and trellises and the like. You have to stand back and think like a five-foot snake. And when you think like a snake, you realize there are very few truly safe nesting places for birds.

I first noticed the wren's work when I was watering the basket of geraniums and lobelias, when I noticed some pieces of arbor vitae and grass laid in a kind of fairy driveway across the surface of the soil. I thought what I always do when I find a Carolina wren nest. Now who put those there?

And then I break into a huge grin, because there's only one person who would put those there and that's a Carolina wren. These wrens are sneaky little things, and they can make a whole nest before you even wake up that it's going on. They're fast, too. Once they've picked a place they like, they don't mess around.

They haul great billfulls of moss and cocoa fiber, grasses and rootlets and skeletonized leaves and before you know it they have a little domed affair which may or may not have a fabulous porch that spills out and over the container. This was a very restrained pair, and they omitted the portico and went with a modest walkway of arbor vitae. This pair also skimped on the dome. Most Carolina wren nests are thickly roofed, with a hole in the side, but this pair relied on the geranium leaves for shelter, and it worked very well.

I delighted in standing at the sink, catching them at their nest building. I'd crank the window wide open, no screen, and shoot away from the darkness of my kitchen blind. Only one hummingbird came into the kitchen the whole couple of weeks I was at it and I caught her in my hand and sent her right back outside. Not so fast, Buzzy Marie.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile you know that I have a lot of favorite birds and you can't really take me too seriously because I love birds so much that the way it works out is that the one I'm studying or caring for at the moment is my favorite. Carolina wrens just happen to be a Real Favorite bird right up there with chipping sparrows, eastern phoebes, ruby-throated hummingbirds and eastern bluebirds. So ignore for a moment my tendency to sing the praises of brown thrashers and yellow-breasted chats and blue-gray gnatcatchers and red-bellied woodpeckers and believe me when I say that Carolina wrens are one of my top Favorite Birds. Srsly.

For what is not to love about a bird who helps herself to the moss on your bonsai trees and stuffs great wads of it into your hanging basket to make the most picturesque little domed nest; who sings a cheery duet with its mate that sounds like it's yelling JULIE JULIE JULIE; who never lets so much as a drip from a fecal sac touch your front porch; who brings a steady stream of more or less noxious insects to feed its adorable young right in front of your nose?

So in these next few installments, I invite you to elevate the Carolina wren to one of your Capitalized Favorite Birds, or if you don't want to do that, already having Favorite Birds of your own, then please just indulge me. Be kind. Gush about the birdies. Because Lord knows I have suffered for my art. See previous post.

This Is Not a Rant. It's Just an Update.

Monday, June 29, 2009


Those of you who keep in touch with me via email and Facebook know that I've been AWOL for awhile. First, the whole family was touring through North Dakota and Montana for two weeks. We returned to calf-high grass and two nonfunctional mowers. So there was grass management. The pond was half drained due to a malfunctioning pump filter. So there was fish and muck management. My aunt and cousin and family came for a couple of days. So there was beloved relative management. The Swinging Orangutangs had two gigs. So there was music and sleep management.

After the trip, which was fun but emphatically not a vacation (we were working at two different bird events), my two Canon cameras had about 2,000 exposures on them. Real nice ones. Birds, wild hosses, bison and the like. I was afraid to touch either one of them, because I knew I didn't have the memory on my laptop to handle it, and I wasn't ready to delete a few thousand photos, to make room, because I haven't even blogged about Honduras yet. Why can't they make a laptop with a 90 terabyte memory? They can send a man to the moon.

In the end, it took me a full 24 hours of cussing and deleting files and starting over and backing up and cussing some more and trying again to stuff those fabulous trip photos down an overloaded, smoking laptop's unwilling little throat.

And the grass was still growing outside while we figured out how to get a broken lawn tractor to the repairman without a pickup truck. That same day, June 18, my furnace peed all over the basement floor, and oh, I forgot...the kitchen sink was stopped up for three days upon our return, and the plumbers fixed it, but also spilled 21 years worth of drainglunk on our basement floor. That was really cool. They dumped the compacted stinky grease right next to our driveway and Chet rolled in it. I have pictures of that shamefaced doggeh, but I can't show them to you. I'll get to that in a minute.

I will tell you that laptops don't like having 25,000 photos in their library. They act plumb weird when you get that many in 'em. And a laptop hates talking to a camera with a full memory card of 1,863 photos; it doesn't want to talk to it at all. The laptop hides and pulls the covers over its head and waits for the constipated camera to go away and drop its damn photos somewhere else.

And somewhere in that 24 hours of pure blasphemous fun, during which my children would come into the studio, wordlessly hug me and then creep back out, my laptop's power cord flat out melted, which, upon research, appears to be a Known Problem for the MacBook Pro. A week and $49 later I had someone splice the durn thing and I was briefly back in business, albeit awkwardly swaddled with black electrician's tape. MacBooks and heat, they go together like Polish sausage and grainy brown mustard.

So this morning, June 29, I got up and fired up the Laptop Which Has My Entire Life On It, and it had no sooner booted up than an inky black Curtain of Doom dropped down over the desktop display. Hmm. Restart. Five minutes of tenuous joy. Curtain of Doom. I got on the phone with Apple, thanking the iGods my AppleCare Protection Plan has three more months of good in it, and spent the next four hours troubleshooting. Installing the operating system again. Resetting. Bla bla bla. But the Canadian technician on the phone sounded cute, so that helped. It's hard to flirt when you're freaking out, but I managed. Long, boring story short: it has to go to the doctor. Or the coroner. Or something. Maybe it just needs an autopsy. So before it died for the tenth and final time I transferred a few vital things onto my Old Slow iMac (which has some shutdown issues of its own) so I could function. That was just today.

Oh my. I seem to have let a rant slip out.


That's what's coming, if I can drag the photos off my external hard drive. Yes, Jesus saves, and so do I. I back up like a scalded ape. I'm just sayin' that there is so much busted stuff coming down I want to wear a hat.

Now. Something good did happen today, and that's that I found out that my commentary about the ferocity of a mother's love ("This Mama Will Protect Every Hair on her Cub!") will air this afternoon, Monday, June 29, on All Things Considered in the second hour. For those of you on Eastern Time, that'd be sometime after 5 pm. So tune in. And if you miss it, you can find it at the link above.

In the meantime, I am going to take the kids to pick some blueberries, because that I can do without paying a repairman.

Snakeskin Surprise

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June's the time when we find snakeskins. Phoebe spotted the skin of a black rat snake deep within a crevice in our back patio. I came out and was glad to find it so fresh that it was still moist and pliable. I teased it out with a tweezers without displacing a single scale, a feat in itself, since it was hung up on the rough sandstone blocks. It was complete and perfect. The snake must undergo a hormonal surge or drop, to let loose of its skin in one go like that. They then find a snug rough-walled place, like a crack in a patio, to get it hitched and start peeling it away. It must feel wonderful to shed your skin. I'll never know. Well, I flake a bit in winter.

It was about as tall as Phoebe is: 5' 2" to her 5'4". Yikes.

We were fascinated by the way the skin had every single feature of the living snake except its mucous membranes and innards. It was inside out, the lenses of the eyes intact. Imagine shedding your eye lenses. Imagine shedding your skin. Whooo.

I turned it right side out to see the eyes and lower jaw as they would appear on the animal. I wondered how the skin shedding stopped at the lips, leaving the mucous membranes unaffected. The whole thing blows my mind. Blew the kids’ minds, too.

What my babies put up with…Despite his confident look, Liam had a harder time with donning the boa than Phoebs. He's just fakin' it here. Note stegosaur jammie pants.

But there was someone else who was wondering about this thing, too. Chet Baker don’t like snakes. He was dubious.

He thought the skins (we had found another just a few days earlier) were probably still dangerous.

Ever been bit by a dead bee? They can bitecha, just the same as the live ones.

It’s OK, Baker. Those skins won’t hurt you.

I am not so sure, Liam. I think they can still snap at me.

I am ready to jump aside or bite, whichever I need to do.

Phew, Mether, put those smelly things somewhere now. They give me the creepity creeps.

Is there a more expressive face in the Kingdom of Dog?

Saving a Bluebird

Thursday, June 25, 2009


There had been five bluebird babies in the front yard bluebird box when I last checked the nest. Three males and two females, I knew that. The bluebird pair made the unusual move of keeping them in and around the yard once they'd fledged; usually bluebirds take their babies deep into the woods for the vulnerable early post-Italicfledging stage, only returning two to three weeks later into the nesting territory. And it bothered me that each time I counted, I found only four babies in the yard. We were missing a male. A couple of weeks went by and he never showed up. Oh, well, c'est la vie, at least we have four. But I wondered if I'd ever know what happened to him.

One afternoon when the fledglings were pretty well grown, I pulled into the driveway, got out of my car and heard a baby bluebird calling insistently, distressed. Neener. Neener. Neener. I followed the sound, my hands still full from my errands, and pinned it down. It was coming from inside a stovepipe baffle. Oh good grief. There it was, a baby bluebird who had fallen down into the open top of the old baffle.

You can see a properly mounted stovepipe baffle on their nest box, top center, and the old topless baffle resting on the ground beneath our martin gourd pole, top right. That's the one he fell into. There was no getting out of it once he was in the 24" tube.

By this time, I'm holding the stranded baby in my hand for the kids to admire. Photos by Bill Thompson III.

He was fine, but he'd been in there a long time, so I gave him a dropper of water and four mealworms.

And it occurred to me where his brother might have gone, right after they fledged. I gave the baby to Phoebe to hold. She loooves to hold baby creatures. Liam, not so much. Too scritchy and scrabbly.

I walked over to the 2' length of stovepipe where our baby had been trapped and lifted it up.

And there was his brother, two weeks gone. The all-blue tail, telling his sex.

His skull, frail as an eggshell, unossified, so young. Rats, rats, rats.

I propped up the baffle with a rock, leaving an escape hole beneath for any future stumblers.

And gave the lucky live bluebird a final kiss on the head before releasing him to the care of his family. We've seen him in the yard many times since.

You can't anticipate all the ways a baby bird can run afoul of the careless trappings of man, but sometimes you're lucky enough to be there to help when they do.

June's Gifts

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


So very many gifts in June, among them hanging baskets filled with treasured things from my greenhouse

Geranium "Frank Headley" left, "Maverick Hot Pink," right

There's the sound of running water in the pond out back

my crazy tea rose, "Rio Samba," a color-changer that goes from yellow to red over the life of the flower

the impossible bounty of the flower beds, that spills over

into container after container, all of the elevated ones filled with the things rabbits like. We are big on pedestals here.

Come evening, there may be thunderheads and storm light

and scared little boys to cuddle and comfort.

And there is always a dribble of dog.

My Garden Fantasy

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Native Missouri primrose, Oenothera spectabilis, in bloom by our garage. Keeping good company with a European field daisy.

A wee garden tour for you.

Every year there is a garden tour in Marietta, Ohio, the town nearest us. Well, it's still about 20 miles away. And the Marietta garden tour is one of my favorite events of the year, because the kids and I get to walk through other people's backyards and see what they think is pretty. It's kind of like watching "Cops," where you get to go inside those houses that you might only drive by with a little shudder. Well, it's actually nothing like watching "Cops," but I think you know what I mean. You get to poke around, to snoop, to see what other people do and think and plant.

I have always wanted to be on the Marietta garden tour, to open my gardens to viewing. But since hundreds and hundreds of people visit the gardens, they would have to have a set of chartered buses or the world's most bodacious carpool to get them the twenty miles out here from town. So it's never going to happen, but I always go on the tour and wish. I could give a good garden tour.

I could show everyone such a good time. I'd open my tree swallow box and voila! there would be sweetly smiling rubber swallow babies cuddled down amidst the feathers.

We'd take in the view of the north shade bed along the front of the house

and admire the aptly-named Salvia superba, the culinary sage plant I grew from a seed many years ago. Put a few of those leaves in butter and throw some portobella ravioli in that butter and you have something, ma'am. And I use the leaves year-round, fresh from the plant.

I'd have my assistant, Phoebe, go in the house and fetch the blooming Psychopsis mendenhall "Hildos."

We'd set it up in front of the blooming sage plant, just for color overkill.

Everyone would gasp and want to photograph this chest-high wonder.

The eastern phoebe would tear some fibers from the cocoa mat planters, and pause on her way to the nest on our special shelf, put up just for her.

Then she'd fetch up on the Garden Forge ornament, while the Knockout rose bloomed and bloomed. Gasp!

And that's just the front bed. Mmmm. Such a sweet dream. I guess I'll have to share it with you all instead. Come to think of it, that's way better than having to weed my fingers to the nubs and clean the house and try to get the dirt out from under my nails in time for the first busload to roll up. Virtual garden tour!

When June Comes!

Phoebe drowning in honeysuckle. Photo by her daddy, Bill Thompson III.

But when June comes
Rench my throat in wild honey and whoop out loud!
Spread them shadders anywhere
I'll get down and waller there

from "When June Comes" by James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet."

My father's favorite poem. Aw, I'm bawling again. That's no way to start a post.

Long shadders, leaf shadders.

When June comes, I get to go out in the meadow with my dog.

I get to open bluebird boxes and find one all full of little gray bluebird girls.

And one all stuffed full of chickadee.

I can look out the window and see a newly minted bluebird contemplating her world.

Or see an indigo bunting sharing a bath with a cardinal.

And not sharing it with a phoebe.

Dear Mrs. Passerina,

Your son does not always play well with others. Please speak to him about sharing.

June is overwhelming. I love it so much. I just wish I could take some of this bounty and spread it out through the rest of the year, that's all. I wish June lasted three or four months, so I could take it all in. But everyone's in a hurry, everyone's nesting, everyone's blooming, everyone's singing, and I can't keep up. I just grab little bouquets as I go.
[Back to Top]